May 25, 2023


The Nature Journal: A Backyard Adventure. By Savannah Allen. Viking. $18.99.

Can We Play Baseball Mr. DeMille? By Mark Angelo. Illustrated by Patricia and Robin DeWitt. FriesenPress. $21.99.

     The past always seems to look rosier in hindsight, and some children’s books take advantage of that to create or re-create stories steeped in nostalgia. Savannah Allen’s The Nature Journal mixes the sweet scent of older times with the time-tested notion of a young child’s dreaming to create a lovely little paean to the close relationship within a father-and-son family unit. The boy, Tim, follows in his father’s footsteps by enjoying small outdoor excursions, during which he keeps journals of his mundane-but-fascinating discoveries: flowers, worms, rocks, insects, and so forth. There is nothing extraordinary about any of these “finds,” but there is something special in doing what his father did in the past. In fact, Tim prefers to do his explorations with his father; but one day his dad just can’t join him – he has work and chores to do – so Tim decides to go through his father’s actual journals, which are stored in their home’s attic and “full of the adventures that his dad took before Tim was born.” While reading the journals – which Allen ensures look a lot like the ones Tim himself keeps – Tim eventually falls asleep, and sure enough, he dreams of far-flung journeys with his dad. Those wordless travels, each illustrated as a double-page spread, take up much of the book and are filled with a child’s notion of visiting an exotic forest, a desert encampment, undersea caves, mountains – all places far removed from the quotidian backyard of Tim’s home. After awakening, Tim “scribbled down his dreams as fast as he could” so as not to forget any of the delightful times. And soon afterwards, Tim’s dad finishes his adult-things-to-do, apologizes for not having more time for Tim that day, and arranges to go on a real adventure with him the next day – in the backyard, where both can make new nature-journal memories. It is an open question whether the make-believe adventures to fascinating realms, or the real ones a few feet from the house, are more meaningful – or maybe not so open, since Tim’s smiles are even broader when hanging out with his father than they were while imagining all the places that the two of them visited in dreamland. A simple and lovely little paean to father-son bonding over a shared experience, The Nature Journal nicely shows ways in which kids and parents can make and enjoy special times together even if they have no way to take trips to the forests, deserts, mountains and oceans.

     Can We Play Baseball Mr. DeMille? is a backyard story of a different sort, and a real-world one at that: it is a memoir in the form of a children’s book. Mark Angelo was seven years old in 1958 when he and some neighborhood friends developed a fanatical devotion to the Los Angeles Dodgers baseball team, which had moved from the East Coast to California the previous year. The problem the kids faced was that they wanted desperately to play baseball themselves, but had nowhere to do so. However, there is a huge lawn at a massive house nearby – reachable through a hole in the surrounding hedge – and the kids think that lawn would be just perfect for some ball games. So they sneak in “one hot afternoon in late June, when we were feeling especially courageous,” and play some ball. And they keep doing that until, inevitably, they are caught by the gardener and tossed unceremoniously out. What to do? The only possible solution is to ask the owner of the home – who happens to be the world-famous film director and producer Cecil B. DeMille – if they can please, please, please use a little bit of his huge lawn area for baseball now and then. Deputized to go to the palatial home and ask that question, Angelo recounts what happened and how enormously surprised and pleased he was when DeMille actually agreed to let them play. DeMille (1881-1959) died not long afterwards, and the land was sold off for homebuilding, so the permission did not last all that long. But then, presumably the childhood dreams of becoming professional baseball players did not last that long, either. Still, the whole story makes for a lovely bit of time travel to an era when major-league baseball was something other than a 100% money grab for entitled millionaires. Angelo’s storytelling is nicely paced (although the absence of a comma after “baseball” in the book’s title is decidedly peculiar). The illustrations, however, are less successful: the impressions of real people (including once-famous baseball players and DeMille) are well done, but the portraits of the neighborhood kids and other characters (such as the gardener and butler) are oddly proportioned in terms of head size, facial features and (especially) hands and fingers. The book looks as if illustrators Patricia and Robin DeWitt could not quite decide whether they wanted to do realistic renderings or comic-style art, so they compromised by creating pictures combining bits of each. Still, it is the story rather than the visuals that will appeal to 21st-century children who have any sense of (and interest in) old-style baseball and, for that matter, old-style moviemaking. There may not be many such kids anymore, but for those who do still gravitate to these topics, Angelo’s personal history will be a highly enjoyable saunter down memory lane.


The Thorns Remain. By JJA Harwood. Magpie Books. $17.99.

     There are so many stories of humans interacting with the fairy world, for better or worse, that coming up with a new angle on the topic seems well-nigh impossible. JJA Harwood deserves considerable credit for trying to do just that, even though, in the end, her attempt falls rather flat, undone by her own less-than-skillful management of the story she tells.

     The Thorns Remain, Harwood’s second novel after The Shadow in the Glass, partakes of a kind of fin de siècle doom and gloom from the start, although actually set just after World War I, in the midst of the Spanish flu pandemic (specifically, in 1919). Pervaded by the notion of things changing, of an inescapable rush to the future if not necessarily to doom, the book has an atmospheric opening in which protagonist Moira Jean’s attempt to recover some lightheartedness after the death of her fiancé leads to her encouraging five of her friends in a fading Scottish Highland village called Brudonnock to join her in a whisky-fueled nighttime dance in the woods. Bad move. The celebration attracts the fae and, in particular, their leader, a prince known as The Dreamer.

     The fae are forces of nature here, not inherently good or evil even though they may seem that way by human standards – this portrayal of their fundamentally alien nature is one thing Harwood manages very well indeed. The humans are handled much less well, the personalities of Moira Jean’s friends never fleshed-out and the events involving her with the townspeople even less clear, especially when the townsfolk (who have known Moira Jean all her life) quickly turn against her at one of several crucial junctions.

     Moira Jean’s possession of an iron medal, given to her after fiancé Angus’ death, protects her from the fae during the dance and gives Harwood the basis for engaging the human with the fae prince in a bargain that Moira Jean intends to use to save her friends. For his part, The Dreamer insists on tithes of all sorts from Moira Jean – an echo of the basis of the legend of Tam Lin, in which the fairies give one of their people to Hell as a tithe every seven years. The Thorns Remain touches on elements of the Tam Lin tale repeatedly – it is specifically referred to by one character early in the book, and then shows up within the narrative as a book-within-the-book – but Harwood’s story is not bound by it. The Dreamer’s original motivation is obscure and ill-defined: essentially, the fae miss having humans around as the world changes, even though their interactions with people are sketchy at best. As the novel progresses, The Dreamer becomes increasingly intrigued by Moira Jean – but this is not to turn into a human-fae romance, either. In fact, Harwood’s ability to navigate a story that incorporates but differs from standard tale-telling involving humans and the fae is a major strength of the book.

     What does happen is that Moira Jean’s personality develops interestingly she strives to fulfill the demands of The Dreamer, even if her motivation for trying so hard to free her friends is less than compellingly presented. Moira Jean’s fleshed-out character makes her much more interesting and believable than Ella, the protagonist of Harwood’s prior book, and is, again, a strength of the story here.

     But all this is really not enough to make The Thorns Remain compelling. The pacing of the story is uneven, with some scenes stretched out to the point of tedium and others rushed through for no apparent reason. Unfortunately, the latter situation applies to the book’s conclusion, which is so abrupt and leaves so many questions unanswered that it almost seems as if Harwood was not quite sure what to do to wrap things up. Moira Jean’s character progression has come to something of a halt when she needs to rely on her mother, the village’s de facto doctor, to help her break her tendency to form co-dependent bonds – by implication with her now-dead fiancé and almost, but not quite, with The Dreamer. Instead of growing to the extent needed to find her own way, Moira Jean needs an external push to move toward a future of her own making – a disappointing element of non-progress.

     There are also elements of the book that seem clearly tacked-on; in fact, Harwood makes it clear what she is going to do in a front-of-book dedication that thanks her friends for urging her to “make it gayer.” Yes, that sort of thing is de rigueur in a lot of writing today, trendy and oh so with-it, but here it is simply awkward – especially when The Dreamer suddenly changes into a female in order to have Moira Jean turn out to be bisexual because…well, there is no “because” within the confines of the book – only in the world in which Harwood wants her book to be accepted.

     The portions of the book devoted to Scottish folklore and to Moira Jean’s relationship with her mother, although germane to the story, also feel largely tacked-on rather than integrated into the narrative. The concept of The Dreamer returning Moira Jean’s friends one at a time – requiring a tithe of his choosing for each – is effective, as is the notion of a time limit on Moira Jean’s attempts (all the humans must be redeemed by Beltane [May Day], six weeks in the future, or be lost forever). But again and again, it is easy to question just why Moira Jean would bother with these imperfectly delineated characters – and why she seems so devoted to a village whose residents are scarcely kindly disposed toward her. Of course, the fae are not kindly disposed toward her, either, despite The Dreamer’s increasing fascination with her. On a “meta” basis, this may be part of the book’s point, and if so, The Thorns Remain is in fact more interesting conceptually than in execution. Looked at as a tale of the entire world changing – which it certainly did after World War I, a conflict that led to the death of four empires (Ottoman, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and German) – the book can be read as showing people (and fae) trying desperately to cling to the old ways of life while moving into the unknown of a world that has changed forever. That is a meaningful and rather deep “meta” reading of Harwood’s book, but if this is what Harwood intends, she does not quite have the narrative skill to pull it off. The Thorns Remain ends up having engaging elements throughout, but an unevenness of pacing and characterization that renders it more interesting for what it could have become than for what it turned out to be.


Paul Lincke: Overtures, Volumes 1 and 2. Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt conducted by Ernst Theis. CPO. $16.99 each.

     It is impossible to fully and fairly evaluate Paul Lincke (1866-1946) in the 21st century without confronting and thinking through some elements of the 19th and 20th. In the 1800s, the influence of Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880) was far more extensive and far deeper than more-recent audiences enamored of his incessant tunefulness may realize. Franz von Suppé imitated Offenbach directly; the best of the Gilbert and Sullivan operettas have a strong Offenbach feeling about them, and there are some deliberate borrowings here and there; and there was more than a little cross-pollination between Offenbach and Johann Strauss Jr. (including their creation of, respectively, the companion waltzes Abendblätter and Morgenblätter). There is a general impression that Offenbach’s influence waned rapidly after his death, or rather that he became influential in fields quite different from his own – specifically musical theater. In some ways this is correct – certainly the operetta direction of Lehár veered sharply away from the Offenbach model – but in other respects, Offenbach remained very much the pole star for other composers.

     This is where Lincke comes in. The two excellent CPO volumes of Lincke’s music, ebulliently performed by the Brandenburgisches Staatsorchester Frankfurt conducted by Ernst Theis, again and again sound so strongly “Offenbachian” that listeners – especially lovers of Offenbach’s particular brand of genius – will likely be astonished that the 18 works on the two CDs are not better known and more frequently heard. But that gets to the difficulty of Lincke himself. A lifelong Berlin resident and devoted lover of the city, the apolitical Lincke had a highly successful career that was upended, as was so much else, by World War I; indeed, there were signs it was already fading when hostilities broke out. Lincke stopped writing for the stage altogether in 1917, channeling his creativity in other ways both musical and nonmusical (he founded and ran a highly successful publishing business). His pronounced attachment to Offenbach’s style and predilections in harmony, orchestration and other areas happened to coincide with the cultural demands of the Third Reich – and Lincke became (and did not object to becoming) a musical figurehead for that odious regime, ending up having a complicated relationship with it (much as Lehár did). Lincke’s entwinement with the Third Reich inevitably colors analyses of his life and music, and it is this that seems largely to have kept his music comparatively unknown on international stages.

     Strictly from a musical standpoint, this is a real shame, because the unabashed delights to be heard again and again throughout the two CPO discs provide a pleasurable anodyne to a great deal of more-intense 20th-century music and, for that matter, to the stresses of 21st-century life. Each of the discs opens with one of Lincke’s most-famous works. The first starts with Berliner Luft, a kind of semi-official theme song for Berlin as a city and the piece for which Lincke remains best-known. The second disc starts with Frau Luna, Lincke’s first huge hit and a work that was re-staged and reincarnated numerous times from its first performance in 1899 through to a “gala-ized” version staged in 1935. These pieces are relentlessly tuneful, excellently orchestrated, and packed with features that are instantly recognizable as throwbacks to the Offenbach era, from types of tunes (waltz, galop, etc.) to pacing to the use of specific instrumental highlights (percussion touches, for example). Among the remaining pieces on Volume 1 are Lysistrata, Casanova, Venus auf Erden, Grigri, an entrance piece called Siamesische Wachtparade, and the waltz Verschmähte Liebe – perhaps Lincke’s most-famous non-stage piece. Among the works on Volume 2 are Nakiris Hochzeit, Ein Libestraum (Lincke’s last large-scale piece, composed in 1940), Im Reiche des Indra, Das blaue Bild, the waltz Sinnbild, and the Brandbrief-Galopp. There is no particular order to the presentation, either chronological or otherwise, and in some ways the sequencing is odd: the Siamesische Wachtparade is on Volume 1, while the overture to the operetta from which it is drawn, Nakiris Hochzeit, is on Volume 2.

     Each CD concludes with two of the unusually conceptualized pieces that Lincke wrote after he ceased to produce stage works: they are overtures to theater pieces that do not exist. Volume 1 includes Ouvertüre zu einer Operette and Ouvertüre zu einem Ballett; on Volume 2 are Ouvertüre zu einer Revue and Ouvertüre zu einer Festlichkeit. This last was written in 1933 and performed at festivities marking Lincke’s 70th birthday in 1936, and is his longest overture – and one of his best. However, considering the fact that Lincke’s birthday was being celebrated within the Third Reich and by the official enforcers of its cultural norms may significantly undercut the enjoyment and appreciation of the piece for some listeners.

     Lincke’s music, heard without historical context, is a very strong example of just how extensive Offenbach’s influence was in the many years after his death – but it can be hard to separate Lincke from the situation in which he lived his later life. He actually died not in Berlin but in a town in the Harz Mountains, to which he fled as the Allies closed in on Berlin and eventually bombed most of it to rubble – including Lincke’s house. Lincke’s music is wonderful in practically every way, but some audiences may find it unpalatable to the point of being unlistenable because of its associations with the world within which so much of its composer’s later life took place.

May 18, 2023


Stinkbird Has a Superpower. By Jill Esbaum. Illustrated by Bob Shea. Putnam. $18.99.

Be the Bus: The Lost & Profound Wisdom of The Pigeon. By Mo Willems. Union Square & Co. $15.99.

     Whether they are cartoony with factual underpinnings or cartoony with no element of reality whatsoever, birds can be a highly attractive element of children’s books – and, for that matter, of certain sorts of books aimed at adults. Stinkbird Has a Superpower is a delightful introduction to the decidedly peculiar hoatzin – said in the book to be pronounced WHOT-sin, but more often spoken as HOAT-zin, pretty much as it is spelled. This bird of the Amazon rainforest is called the “stinkbird” because its digestive mechanism leads to it having a strong and off-putting smell of poop – which, however, does not stop people from eating it on occasion. That is a fact not mentioned in Jill Esbaum’s book, in which the cartoon-hoatzin narrator directly says, “No creature wants to eat me.” Bob Shea’s illustrations, like Esbaum’s words, do all they can to make the hoatzin both interesting and, pictorially, adorable: the idea of the book is that a father hoatzin is talking to his gigantic-eyed son about the mysterious superpower that hoatzins have, which is not their smell. The superpower is the ability, when young, to climb up to their nest when they fall or jump out of it – and they do jump, into the river below the branches where hoatzin nests are built, because baby hoatzins (unlike the smelly adults) are food for numerous Amazonian predators if those snakes, monkeys, and raptors can catch them. The baby hoatzins, unprotected when the adults are away from the nest, instinctively fall into the water and swim to a stick or root until it is safe to emerge. Then they crawl out of the river and use the claws on their wings to help them climb back to the nest. Only hoatzin chicks have these wing claws – they disappear as the birds age, and no other extant species has them at all. Esbaum’s helpful narrative and Shea’s pleasant illustrations make a fine combination for exploring some basics about hoatzins, including their climbing ability when they are very young and cannot yet fly (they learn how to do that when about two months old). And there is a back-of-the-book page with a few additional facts about hoatzins, suitably checked by a research associate at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. Oddly, that page is a bit less than 100% accurate: for instance, it emphatically states that “the hoatzin is the only bird that eats nothing but leaves,” but in fact the hoatzin does include some fruit and flowers in its diet. Also, Esbaum misses an opportunity by failing to point out that it is not only the wing claws that let infant hoatzins climb: they also have oversize feet, which Shea’s illustrations do not show. These are minor nitpicks, though, with Stinkbird Has a Superpower being, as a whole, an amusingly presented, well-written and well-illustrated introduction to an unusual bird, no matter how its name may be pronounced.

     At the other end of the “usualness” scale from the hoatzin is the pigeon – but there is nothing ordinary about the one created by Mo Willems 20 years ago for Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus! That delightful bit of absurdity remains as coooote (sorry) as it was two decades ago – but while the original book was strictly for children (despite being found hilarious by adults), there is a new gift-size book that is intended for grown-ups. Be the Bus: The Lost & Profound Wisdom of The Pigeon features the bright blue, weird-eyed, facially expressive, thoroughly anthropomorphic bird imparting tidbits of almost-knowledge that are almost important. Well, ok, they are not important at all, but they are delivered as if they are important, in line with the usual approach of self-help books, which this one sort of is except that it isn’t. Here you will learn, with suitable pigeon drawings illustrating the words, that “dropped food is gravity’s way of sharing,” that “happiness is escaping a warm puppy,” and: “Friendship is like riding a bike. (There’s always a chance you’ll be grievously injured.)” An occasional entry calls on the basics of The Pigeon’s personality: there is a two-page spread that is all black except for The Pigeon leaning morosely against the right-hand page’s right-hand margin, with the left-hand page sporting the words, “You don’t get me.” And here and there are comments that really could come out of a non-pigeon-pervaded self-help tome: “LISTEN to your heart. FOLLOW your gut. WATCH your step.” Even in those cases, though, this is decidedly pigeon-focused thinking, as the stethoscope-wielding pigeon has a grumbling stomach and is about to step on a banana peel. Nothing about The Pigeon is to be taken seriously, of course – by adults or children. However, it is great that grown-ups now have their very own bit of pigeon-driven absurdity to go along with the equal ridiculousness of Willems’ original Don’t Let the Pigeon Drive the Bus!